Shadowman: Burning Skies

The city at night’s a special place, totally different to the city in the light. At night people are more open and the world seems to drift along better; there’s less need to hide when everything’s in shadow, so you tend to get a different kind of person coming out after dark.

Some of them are good people; the poets and the sentinels. They walk the streets and spread cheer or security in equal measure, letting the locals know that things are good and safe. Cops, hookers, sorority girls, vigilante gangs, paramedics; they all play a part in making the world seem right and we’re all glad that they’re there, even if sometimes we don’t show it.

Then there are the ones who love the night for the darkness it brings. In a city more crimes are committed at night because the cautious mind of a predator prefers the shadows; camouflage is easier, even in a city as big and bright as Chicago, even when the light comes from the chaos of a burning apartment building.

I knew about the fire before it started, but I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop it from happening. It didn’t matter that a derelict building in the slums of the city fell to the ground. What mattered was James Thaddeus Millington, about to get himself killed on the eighth floor.

Crouching on the roof of the next building over, I wait for him to take the wrong turn; until that point there’s nothing for me to do. I’ve been wrong in the past and it’s nearly cost me my life, and no matter how many times I save another I’ll always put my own skin first. Ain’t any sense in being a dead hero, after all.

He stops at the window, searching the alleyway below for help, the terror of his own impending death scarred across his face. Poor kid; twelve years old and facing the prospect of oblivion, a situation that’ll remain with him for the rest of his life. He realises that there’s no help coming for him here and right on cue he turns and runs for the staircase; ahead of him is a column of boiling air heated by the fire climbing the building. Stupid kid.

I don’t need to see him now to know that he’ll be dead in a little under five minutes. The heat will overcome him at the fifth floor, and by the time he figures out that the fire’s coming for him he’ll be too weak to get out of the way. The only comforting part is that he’ll be unconscious before the stairs collapse underneath him and pitch him into the middle of hell with no sun-cream. It was time for me to get to work.

I drop my still burning cigarette into the alleyway and straighten up, joints aching slightly as I force them back into action. Jimmy should just be kicking open the door to the stairwell about now, coughing as his lungs try to deal with the heavy particles filling the air. Can’t go up; too much smoke.

Two steps back, not bothering to look over my shoulder, then a quick burst of energy and I launch myself out into space, trusting my own sense of self-preservation to keep me alive. I fly like an angel of death across the alleyway, never taking my eyes off of the target; that same eighth-floor window that little Jimmy had used just a few moments earlier to seek salvation. I pray for my own safety as the tiny pit hole grows larger.

I hit the floor rolling about the same time Jimmy falls to his knees. He can feel the heat of the floor under his hands but doesn’t put the numbers together yet, and as I spring to my feet and pound down the corridor he pulls himself up, pushes on towards his doom. Seconds begin to stretch into minutes.

The building groans in fear around me as I reach the door to the stairwell. The top hinge has popped away from the frame when the kid barreled through it and I feel the extra weight as I rolled my shoulder into the impact. For the second time I’m hurtling through the air as I jump into the yawning pit of the stairwell. Hot air whips at my clothing, turning my long-coat into a sail; not good enough to steer by but it makes a brave attempt at being a parachute. The seventh-floor landing slams into my feet only a moment before the wall makes friends with my back. Two floors below me, Jimmy falls over again, scraping his cheek across exposed timber. The building had finally blooded the boy.

I push away from the wall, hurdling the banister and letting gravity and momentum continue their job of taking me down. The sixth-floor landing feels spongy and I know that another jump would pitch me into hell ahead of Jimmy; not an inviting thought. I still take the stairs three at a time as I race for the boy, using walls to get round corners. My shoulder starts to ache and the building screams louder, trying to rid itself of the pain.

The kid’s just started trying to crawl back up the stairs when I reach him, and I can see the demons in the fire dancing on the wall behind him; I clear the last flight in one jump, catching little Jimmy just as his legs give way for the final time. The floor cracks and creaks beneath me as I hoist him over my shoulder, turning back up the stairs. The fire-truck should be screeching to a halt outside right now, just in time to catch a falling star.

The corridor of the sixth-floor is no different from the eighth, a succession of identical doors terminating in a window over-looking an identical adjacent building. Racing towards another leap of faith I replay the dream in my head, and passing the chest of drawers halfway down the corridor I grab at the handles, dragging a drawer free with barely a break in my stride. Jimmy’s a heavy kid, full of muscle, but I was prepared for the extra weight. The drawer is pure improvisation.

My arm swings forward instinctively, launching my newly acquired luggage at the window with satisfying accuracy. Glass explodes outwards, and on the ground I know that the rescue guys are right where they need to be to see and hear my signal. Now I just had to pray that they recognise it and act. Then it’s a final hurdle, one last push-off with my left foot, and trust the rest of the world to do its job around me.

I’ve never been as happy to land on my ass as when I hit that net. The unsung heroes play their part to perfection and as they bundled me and the kid away from the dying building I know that the night’s over. In the chaos of the rescue services doing their job, I walk away without looking back. The kid’s been saved, and will forever be a different person because of this one night.

I’d played my part in making the world feel good and safe.

I am the Shadowman.

Brown’s is like most cellar-bars; small, dark and cosy. Cramped, intimate booths line the street wall, each with it’s own tiny window pointed at the stars and a secretive atmosphere, while the other walls support a sturdy shelf at just the right height to rest an elbow, a long stool taking the weight off the legs; perfect lounging space.

The bar itself fills about a third of the room, jutting out from the back wall like the prow of a ship, and Rafferty, the owner and manager, has taken great pains to carry this tenuous nautical link through into the décor of the place. Anchors and wheels fight a territorial battle against paintings of tall-ships and photos from a more romantic age. There’s even an old ship’s bell hanging at the centre of the bar, reportedly salvaged from the wreck of a Dutch trader that went down in Yokohama Bay. Judging by the sound it makes when Raff calls last orders each night, most of the patrons are inclined to believe the story.

I always meet Tara in Brown’s. It’s a friendly enough place if you’ve got Irish blood in your veins, and while I don’t meet the requirements as far as lineage is concerned my presence in the bar’s normally tolerated as a reward for the help I’ve given the locals in the past. One of the things I’ve noticed about the Irish is their almost natural sense of debt and honour; that and their cunning use of fermented crops.

Tara Brannigan’s first generation Irish-American, her pop an immigrant who’d made it as a street cop. It was an old cliché, but Chicago had always had its fair share of Sgt. Brannigans, all walking their beat with a jaunty step and the confidence that they were keeping the world safe. It was a shame that old age had overstretched him. Since he’d died, Rafferty had taken over as her guardian angel, making sure she was always welcome and that he was always there if she needed a shoulder to cry on. I’ve played the same role myself a couple of times in the few years I’ve known her.

She was sitting at the bar when I stepped out of the rain. To look at her you wouldn’t know she’s a cop; not unless you have a reason to know, that is. If anyone asks she tells them she works in an office, but always with an edge of deceit in her voice; nor does an office job fit with the way she dresses. Clothes maketh the man, they reckon, and if that’s the case then Tara Brannigan was an artist trapped in the mind of a sentinel, a true warrior-poet of old Celtic myth.

Slipping on to the stool beside her, I signal for the girl working the bar; she smiles at me, mechanical reaction to a recognised face, and starts to pull a pint of my usual. Tara smiles as well, her eyes joining in, so I smile back.

“You’re a mess, Mitch,” she tells me, as if I hadn’t figured that one out for myself. “You really should take more care over your appearance, if you’re wanting a girl to take any notice of you.”

My smile becomes a grin as I drop money into the bar-girl’s hand. The clouds in my glass swirl in a majestic, cosmic dance, galaxies forming and dying in seconds.

“I always got told the best girls like a man who ain’t afraid to be manly,” I reply. “Besides, what’s wrong with the grime of an honest day’s work?” On the TV set behind the bar, the Cubs are reaching the end of a seventh inning stretch, highlights of the weekend game.

She frowns. “I saw the news. Your honest day’s work has been on every channel for the last hour, even the nationals.” She turns to stare at me, her face blank. “Why can’t you take credit for what you’re doing?”

The clouds thin out as I considered my response. I’m surprised that she has to ask, but even more surprised at how long it takes me to answer. “Because if people know who I am, I become a target,” I finally say, feeling her eyes burning into my skull.

“Shadowman’s an icon, an effigy. The world’s grown up on superheroes, and now they’ve got one for real. If they find out that the hero’s just a regular guy then the mystery’s gone, and the hero becomes a target for the vultures.” I find the courage to look at her and see confusion as she tries to understand. “I’m afraid of dying.” I tell her, raising my pint in salute.

I guess she’s got nothing to say to that. She simply raises her glass, returning the toast, and we drink. After a long pause, during which the Cubs roll out another home run, she stares at my face.

“The investigators are pretty sure it was arson,” she says, throwing her badge into the pot one more time. “Makes this the fifth in a row, all with the same MO,” she adds, raising the stakes just a notch more.

“I only saw this one,” I admit, momentarily giving her an insight into my own hand. “I was there to save a life, which means they’ve stopped being so careful.” My own position gets stronger.

She finishes her drink slowly. “Everybody knows who’s pulling the strings,” she finally confirms, calling my bluff. “Problem is we ain’t got any hard evidence and he’s got a wall of money to keep him safe.”

I shrug. “You want me to go pay him a visit?” I ask, half-watching the game on the box. Falkenborg has just stepped up to the plate for the Padres, his face a well-rehearsed mask of nonchalance.

Tara smiles, a flash of Celtic witch haunting her lips. “No thanks Mitch, we don’t want to give this guy an excuse.” She pushes away from the bar. “I have to get home. You know how Lenny gets if his dinner ain’t ready on time.”

“Give that old tiger a hug from me,” I smile as she slings her coat over her shoulders. A quick hug and she starts to head for the door; I let her get past me before putting my arm out. “What’s his name, Tara?”

She doesn’t need to ask who I mean, and knows me well enough to recognise the tone in my voice. “Straffield,” she tells me without looking; her pension hits the pot on top of her badge. I let her go as the name echoes around my brain. “Be careful, Mitch. He’s connected.”

“Everybody’s connected,” I mutter to nobody in particular as the door slams shut behind her.

Falkenborg strikes out.

Gordon Straffield is a man with a lot of money, most of it not his. I’ve seen his type before; lonely, scared men who can only feel good when they’re pushing little people around. Without the cash he’d be just another loser nobody trying his best to hold down a regular job. It’s his bankroll that makes him dangerous.

After leaving Brown’s I find myself riding the Ell for the company. Thousands of people ride those cars every day, rarely seeing each other. I like that sort of company, and the anonymity it brings. It helps me relax. It helps me to think. This time my thinking takes me to the doors of the Chicago Police Department, Fourth Precinct.

The old building is quiet, the graveyard shift ticking by as normal. Two uniforms lounge against the carved façade, barely acknowledging my greeting as I stride past them; acting like you belong somewhere is the most important part of breaking the law. In the lobby, I make my way to the gents’ toilets, using the shadows and my own innate sense of timing to disappear. Knowing when not to be seen is often just as important.

Instinct takes over as I climb the stairs. I step through a door and realise after five yards that I’m on the wrong floor; that’s how I manage to avoid the two detectives disappearing round the corner of the flight below me when I step back into the stairwell. The records department is another two floors up. I still haven’t decided whether it’s luck or instinct when I finally reach the right door.

Tara had given me a name. Sure, it was a name I could find in the phone book, but Ma Bell wouldn’t be able to tell me everything. She’d also suggested that the cops had the goods on Straffield but not enough clout to deliver. I needed to see his jacket.

The stacks are dark and silent as I let myself in. The clock on the wall, perfectly placed to catch the window-cast sodium-glow, points to the bottom half of the dial and I know the sun’s going to banish the night in less than an hour. For the second time that night I need to move fast. Finding Straffield is easy; using the office copier to take it with me is necessarily foolhardy.

When I leave the building by a side door, I’m carrying a man’s life in my pocket.

Full name: Gordon Andrew St John-Straffield. He dropped the St John at Harvard, when his father caught his mother in bed with three high-school cheerleaders. Owner and Managing Director of Straffield Properties following a series of lucky plays on Wall Street a few years back. His success made him one of the wealthiest landowners on the Chicago skyline.

The more I get to know him, the deeper the hate becomes. Every deal that he’s made has been supported by a foundation of fear and violence. There’s enough in the file to indict him several times over, but as Tara suggested, his connections are just powerful enough to make the evidence inconsequential; a paid-off official here, a forceful takeover there, it all added up. That’s even worse than making it go away; it acknowledges that he’s guilty, but says ‘so what’ to the system. Something needs to be done to stop this parasite, something hard.

The police had talked to the locals after each fire, tried to find someone brave enough to speak out. Every time they’d tried, the locals had buried their heads in the sand; go away, we don’t need your help. I wouldn’t have any more luck than the trained negotiators. Reading between the lines I knew why Tara had been less than enthusiastic with her praise; if little Jimmy had died in that fire then no amount of red-tape would have saved Straffield. I wonder who else will have to die in Jimmy’s place.

According to the résumé there are eight more buildings in Straffield’s hands, all herded together in a strip of land by the lake; prime real-estate. I remember there’d been a lot of noise about the area a few years ago, environmental groups waving around some fish that was unique to that strip of coastline, and as I scan the reports a Japanese name jumps out at me; a very substantial offer’s been made for the land, the decision left hanging. It all smells bad, and it isn’t the sashimi that’s rotten. The phrase ‘blood-money’ springs to mind.

My hand reaches for the cold beer I’d cracked and I’m surprised to feel a warm can. A glance at my watch and I realise I’ve been sat reading for four hours. I need sleep, if only to rest my mind. My self-improved body overhears the thought and a thousand aches applaud the sentiment. Rolling to my feet, I head for the comfort of bed, hoping I don’t dream again.

The problem with praying for something before you go to sleep is that usually you end up getting just what you don’t want.

I wake up in a cold sweat; a cliché, one I’m getting used to. I quickly scribble down the remnants of my subconscious mind, keywords and memes to help me remember as much of the dream as I can. Sweat drips off the tip of my nose, tickling the tiny hairs as gravity claims it. The unexpected tactile moment breaks my focus and the last of the dream fades, surviving as a page-and-a-half of random words. Wiping the salt-water from my face, I stumble into the bathroom.

Eating breakfast at eight in the evening, I scan my notes and sure enough my miracle rewiring takes over. I relive the dream, this time in full Sensory Virtual Reality. It’s like stepping into the Matrix, but getting there a day ahead of everybody else. Hell, deja-vu’s an old friend next to how this feels. The best I can come up with is that it feels like swimming in ant-filled treacle wearing a Velcro g-string; uncomfortable.

I’m standing on a rooftop much like the last. The aerials are different, and the clouds are heavier, but I know it’s one of Straffield’s. I can smell burning drifting up the side of the building and when I glance down there’s already a grey dampness to the view. Apartment lights bounce back from the gently billowing drapes of smoke, giving it all a romantic, Arthurian ambience.

I stop, rewind, missing something. Apartment lights, I realise, represent occupied homes, full of life, full of families. Stepping from the roof I allow myself to fall slowly, looking in the windows: a couple of lovers explore each other in a dark bedroom, a child sleeps peacefully, a family argues passionately in Italian. Below me an engine growls and I’m on the ground, just in time to see the tail lights vanish into the night.

In the basement of the building, the fire eats away at the refuse, its hunger awoken by two gallons of gasoline. I count maybe forty lights from my front-row seat and realise that there’s nothing I can do to save them. I got here too late. The ants crawl around me, treacle fills my mouth.

People think that precognition’s a great gift; being able to predict the lottery numbers or knowing if you’ll still be happily married in a year. Most people don’t think of the downside; living with the knowledge that there’s nothing you can do to save over a hundred lives, hearing their screams as they die every time you close your eyes. I can’t let it happen.

I scream with rage and take hold of the dream, shake it like an errant child. I need to know how it starts. Something inside me falls away and I’m no longer in treacle. Suddenly it’s easier to move, but the ants are still there. So is the Velcro. I roll back the dream, to a point before I first arrived, and I watch the murderers go about their business. I listen as they talk about the Padres-Cubs game and I see the pivot, the point of no-return, the moment of commitment. I know how to stop it.

I’m lying on the floor when I return to the present, a fresh bruise on my arm. I try to understand what just happened but give up after reaching my third dead-end; the science of what I can do will have to wait. Checking the time I realise that there’s a few hours until I’m needed. Grabbing my coat, I head towards Brown’s.

They arrive exactly on time. I’m sitting in the shadow of a dumpster, watching two gorillas going through the motions of being human; arson is a simple job, with little thought involved. They wait, grunting at each other, smoking cheap Mexican cigarettes. I can smell the gasoline in the back of the van, four half-gallon cans waiting to be carried into the waiting basement. They barely notice the twinkling lives above them.

I wait, something I’m good at. Until their actions reach critical mass I’m nothing more than an observer, so I wait and watch. Finally they finish whatever passes for intellectual discourse between them and take up their true vocation; chaos. Arms filled with gas-cans, they disappear into the darkness of the basement, not seeing their shadow follow them down the stairs.

It’s as I remember it, a tangle of corridors terminating in an abandoned generator room. Piles of old clothes and discarded furniture fill most of the available space, a catastrophe waiting to happen. I’ve already seen the safely disconnected cables leading to the forgotten heart of the building, the handiwork of a considerate super. The fire will destroy the plastic insulating caps and provable foul-play will be cast into doubt. The thugs begin to throw accelerant around, filling the air with sharp metal smells, the unmistakable scent of hell’s potential; the pivot.

I move without thinking, letting the dream take over. The first thug doesn’t even see me as I slug him with the eighteen inches of steel pipe I like to carry. His skull makes a wet sound as I connect, drawing the attention of the second. My body rolls through a half-imagined acrobatic dance as the gorilla swings a still-full jerry can, and my pipe doubles him over, knocking the fight out of him with his breath. I drop my elbow into the back of his neck, sending him to sleep for a while. My mouth’s full of the taste of death interrupted.

Dragging the goons out of the basement I call Tara using their own cell phone. She doesn’t ask too many questions, knowing that I’ll be gone as soon as I know the cops are there; everybody in the precinct knows she has a vigilante sweetheart and they’ll listen if she tells them where to look. Scrolling through the names in the phone’s book, I find GS. It’s too much of a coincidence for me to ignore it. I hit dial.

He answers after two rings. “Why are you calling me here?” he asks angrily, no doubt thinking I’m somebody else. I let the silence fill his ear for a few seconds.

“I’m coming for you Straffield,” I tell him.

He sounds confused. “Who is this?” he demands. It sounds like he’s trying to puff out his chest in false bravado.

I’ve always had a flair for the melodramatic. “Look to the shadows,” I say. I hang up, cutting off whatever he tried to say next. Sirens on the night tell me that it’s time to leave. Hansel and Gretel are still sleeping, Hansel most probably with a fractured skull. I hope their dreams are nightmares.

I find Straffield pacing the floor of his penthouse, looking scared. Getting past the commissionaire was a stroll in the park, the PIN for the private elevator was in his police file. I make a mental note to buy Tara a present next time I’m downtown.

The elevator opens onto a gallery. From the shadows I watch him pace across the same corridor of Asian weave over and over again, my sinister warning working at his guilt. I’m surprised he’s not picked up the smell of gasoline yet. I brought two cans with me for luck, carefully twisting the caps as tight as I could. Even after a hot bath there was still a lingering odour. Reading my mind, he stops walking and looks up at the gallery, frowning.

For an eternity everything stands still and I’m almost tempted to recite an old mantra, “Klatu Barrata Niktu.” The impulse makes me smile, direct opposition to Straffield’s fear. Standing on the weave, he swallows hard.

“Who’s there?” he asks, his voice shivering in the darkness. In his heart he still thinks he’s safe. His bowels very nearly give out when I answer him.

“Shadowman,” I whisper, letting acoustics carry the sound. I watch him spin on the spot, trying to locate the source of his impotence. “I’ve come for you, Gordon,” I announce, allowing the volume to rise a little. I watch a bead of sweat roll down his cheek.

Fear tightens his throat, constricting his breathing. Adrenaline speeds up his reactions, dilates his pupils and heightens his senses. “You won’t get away with this,” he tries to convince himself. “I only have to press one button and this place will be crawling with cops,” his voice says; his eyes betray the button’s location. While he talked I had unscrewed the caps from the jerry-cans, letting the air get to the contents.

Rising out of the darkness I chuckle, a low, throaty sound. He turns to see me stepping over the rail, my coat flaring out behind me. I imagine that to him I must look like the Angel of Death. Carl Orff plays through my mind. Before he’s taken two steps towards salvation I’m on his back, pushing him to the floor with my weight. The weave burns the skin away from his cheek as he slides under me. I take advantage of his shock to strengthen my grip on the cans, pressing my knees into his back for balance.

Recovering quickly he scrabbles at the floor, bunching the rug up underneath himself. This is fine by me. As I start to pour the gas over his back it soaks into the llama-wool nicely. I hear myself whistling, an improvised touch of madness to terrify my victim. Straffield mewls like a baby.

The cans empty quickly and I can taste iron again; blood and gasoline have the same distinctive aroma of ferrous. Below me the parasite’s managed to roll over, his face gleaming with an oily film of hydrocarbons.

“Gasoline has a ridiculously low vapour point, which is why it’s used in the internal combustion engine.” I tell him as he tries to wipe his face clean. “All it takes is a single incandescent spark to start an uncontrollable thermal chain reaction.”

I reach into my pocket and pull out my smokes, lifting the lighter up to catch the light. A Zippo lighter, that icon of Americana, works because of the same science. I see by the expression on Straffield’s face he knows this as I casually slide a fresh cigarette into my mouth.

“Your clowns have been caught, Gordon,” I say, crouching down over him. The stench of gas is overpowering and I have to bite back the urge to vomit. Tough guys don’t throw up over their victims. “It’s only a matter of time before they sing, and finding your personal number on their cell phone gives the police a lot of muscle.”

He stares up at me as I tell him the news; from the expression he’s giving me I guess that Tara’s managed to slow down the judicial process a touch; the number of presents I owe her goes up. Savouring the moment of panic I continue; “It’s just a shame that they got caught trying to torch a building with over a hundred people in it. That won’t look very good with your friends, will it?”

His eyes widen, panic replaced by genuine terror. He knows that he’s lost, that as soon as the word gets out he’s ruined. No amount of grease will save him from the full weight of the law, and as he sinks lower into the pit he’s dug for himself he knows favours will dry up, connections will be broken. I see it in his eyes, the moment his world falls away, and watch as he collapses in on himself. Gordon Andrew Straffield ceases to exist in a pool of gasoline, wrapped in a very expensive but undoubtedly ruined Asian-weave rug, and I watch him fade with a smile.

I step away from him. No longer standing in a puddle of gas I dig my lighter out of my coat pocket, a brass standard from the war. Lighting my smoke, I turn back to look at the broken man. “Burn baby, burn,” I say for no reason. Carefully I stand the Zippo on the corner of a Scandinavian glass-top table. He’s still staring at it when I climb in the elevator and hit the button for the lobby. The smell of gasoline follows me all the way to the street.

It takes Tara a week to get over what I did. It helps that I gave her the two gorillas, but pouring a gallon of accelerant over one of the richest men in the city takes away some of the sparkle. She calls it unnecessary; I call it fun. We never agree on that. When she talks to me again she tells me that he never did take the coward’s route. The cops found him still sitting there an hour later when he didn’t answer his phone. He was terrified that any spark would ignite the gasoline, even one from his own static.

I watch the story unfold on the news, misdeeds I already know about suddenly appearing on the evening bulletin. Since the city put him behind bars I’ve not had any dreams; well, not the bad ones, anyway. What Tara doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

The city is a much better place at night; it’s easier to understand.

Especially when you’re watching it from behind yesterday’s shadow.

S. Naomi Scott (c) 2005

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